For months, you manage not to spend every last dollar on heroin.
. . .
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You want to go to Hypnotic Forest, the EDM festival everyone keeps talking about. It’s $400 for a ticket. You buy it online. The only problem is you don’t have a ride anymore. David promised to go with you, and to drive, and then he decided to resell his ticket at a higher price.
But Violet said she was going. You and Violet used to be close until you parted ways sophomore year. A couple of weeks ago you bumped into her at a party. Violet gave you the number to her hook-up and swore on his reliability and better prices. You happily accepted the connection.
“He’s always got good dope, none of that cut Mexican Mud shit, he’s like the only dude I know who doesn’t cut, he’s good, it’s good stuff, hit him up and tell him I linked him to you, he’ll probably give you a better price since he’s got a thing for me.” Violet’s eyes looked like they were popping out of her skull, her pupils dense black marbles. Cocaine. You almost asked for a bump but decided not to.
“Yeah, shit has blown lately though ‘cause I’ve been trying to save up for Hypnotic Forest,” she said.
“For real? Who you going with? You should totally come with us; my friend is going to have some bomb mushrooms. You ever try mushrooms before? Oh my God, I love mushrooms, we get ‘em from inside the perimeter too, amaze-balls! But I can’t do a lot ‘cause sometimes they make me sick.”
Violet picks you up the Friday of the festival. You link up at the McDonald’s on Industrial Boulevard. She pulls up in an old, beat-up Toyota Corolla. It’s a mint green color that looks odd on a car. A guy you’ve never seen before is in the front seat. He has oily hair and bad skin. Two other girls you remember seeing at the party are in the back, and they’re not happy to see you. The one closest to the door grudgingly moves over just enough for you to get in and place your bag between your feet. There are no seat belts, and the air conditioning doesn’t work, which means all four windows need to be kept open for the ride to be somewhat bearable. Your hair dances spastically in the wind.
“We all pitched in for the ‘shrooms already,” Violet yells back to you. “You have cash on you? If not, we can stop at an ATM.”
Your heart sinks. You don’t even care about the stupid mushrooms. You’d much rather keep what little money you have left.
“Sure, yeah. I have some money on me…how much?”
“Two hundred bucks total, we split five ways, everyone pitched in forty.”
You have $62 on you. That’s all the money you have in the world. You pull out two wrinkled twenties and it feels like gravity itself is working against your hand, so difficult is it to give Violet the money. She pockets it.
It’s a lengthy drive. The festival is in the middle of nowhere, and it’s not long before you have no idea where you are. You’re not used to seeing corn stalks and tractors and cows. Even though the girls next to you clearly don’t want to be friends, you’re grateful that you’re not alone, and that someone else is doing the driving and navigating in what feels like a foreign country.
You’re starting to crave. Your skin is tingling, and you know it won’t be long before it begins to crawl. The body aches haven’t started yet but you’re so afraid of the imminent, horrible discomfort that the thought alone makes you jiggle your knee. You longingly think of the heroin in your purse, but there’s no way you’re going to do a shot in the car in front of everyone, not when they’d all expect you to share. You sneak a glance to your left, pretending to look out the other window for a split-second. Both girls are asleep. You reach into your purse and pull out the few remaining Xanax you have. You force yourself to swallow them even though your mouth is dry with thirst.
Despite the wind whipping your hair into a frenzy and how uncomfortable the car ride is, eventually you manage to doze off. The Xanax helps; it keeps you from freaking out. You wake up to find the car parked at a gas station. Everyone’s getting out.
“Bathroom break,” Violet tells you.
You look around. Now you’re really in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing but fields of mustard and green as far as the eye can see. A vending machine selling cans of snuff stands next to the only pump. If the gas station door wasn’t propped open with a horseshoe you’d think it were closed.
You decide to take advantage of the bathroom’s privacy and do a shot. You try to hurry, but you don’t want to miss the vein. Violet calls out to you before leaving the bathroom, telling you they’ll be waiting in the car.
“Got it,” you yell back as you wrap a thick rubber band around your right bicep and pump your fist.
Relief hits almost immediately. You fall backward and plop onto the toilet, your head tilted back, your eyes closed, a lazy smile lifting your cheeks. Everything is good. No more discomfort, no more anxiety or sadness or regret or shame or guilt or uncertainty or unwanted memories. You’re where you’re happy, and everything is going to be just fine. There’s something deep within you that’s rekindled when you’re high and free; it’s always been a kind of thought in the back of your head, a cerebration that escapes you when you’re not using. You don’t feel so vulnerable or have to reckon with the painful past that plagues your mind every day.
After a minute, you get up and put your gear back into your purse. Lightheaded and coasting on dopamine, you stumble out of the stall and stop at the sink before exiting, making sure you’re composed enough to walk out. You love looking in the mirror after doing a shot. It’s the only time you actually like seeing yourself.
You nod to the attendant and make your way outside, but the car isn’t there. You look around and then walk to the back of the gas station. Nothing. You run out to the road and look left and right, searching.
They left you.
You walk back into the gas station and approach the attendant. He’s sitting on a stool reading a magazine, using his big belly as angled support. It looks like there’s a hockey puck bulging in his pocket, the telltale shape of a can of chewing tobacco. An old electric fan blows behind him. You stand there, waiting to get his attention, but he doesn’t even look up at you.
“Can I do for ya?” A toothpick dangles from his mouth. He flips a page.
“Do you have a phone?”
“You don’t have a phone? Not even a landline?”
“Nope, ‘fraid not,” he says in the tone of someone who would yawn during an earthquake.
“Well, do you know where the closest phone is, then?”
“It’s ‘bout fifteen miles to the nearest blacktop.”
“Are you serious?”
“Serious as dick cancer,” he grunts.
You’re too overwhelmed to cry. It’s hot and you have nothing to drink, nothing to eat, and barely any money. Everything but your purse is now gone, stolen by Violet and her stupid friends. You don’t even know which direction to start walking. And 15 miles?
“Which way do I go—to get to the next town, or wherever there’s a phone?”
The attendant points a thumb backward.
You walk and walk for what feels like forever. You untie your shoes because your feet are so swollen. The air has that spilled-fuel shimmer to it. The beautiful, denim-blue sky is now your enemy, its emptiness providing no respite from the summer sun. You’re high, but it’s a waste of a shot; normally, you’d find a place to nod off after shooting up, but instead you’re walking through the dog’s breath air of a scorching summer day with the worst cotton mouth ever. You try to enjoy the high as much as possible, thinking up ways to distract yourself from the predicament you’re in. You count the number of beer cans lying in the ditches. You kick a rock down the road. You think of what you’re going to say to Violet the next time you see her.
There’s a noise behind you. You turn, squinting into the blurred distance. It’s a car, the first one you’ve seen. You stick out your thumb and try to smile, hoping for a break, your heart pleading for whoever’s driving to stop. They do.
It’s an ’83 Cadillac Deville, a garish, blood red color. The back bumper is scabbed with rust and there’s no license plate. You’re so happy you could skip, and you quickly hop into the back.
You soon realize you’ve made a mistake.
He’s a big, black man. Bald as a stone. His massive, piebald hands are gripped tightly on the steering wheel, and there’s something about him that seems to ooze menace. And it smells. The car has a stagnant odor to it, the sort of sour and uremic odor that’s unnamable but hangs in the air and sinks into the interior of everything, like stale cigarette smoke. The backseat is littered with junk, all of it strange in an unsettling way: a plastic doll without clothing, a can of bug spray, file folders, laundry detergent, an old phone book with frayed pages, a box of latex gloves, a grass-stained shoe, a cracked photo frame without a photo, a black garbage bag full of something heavy.
This wasn’t your first-time thumbing. You’d bummed plenty of rides in the past. But it was unsafe. Most people saw it as asking for trouble, which meant whatever crime might befall a hitchhiker, whatever debased, grisly sexual act laced with violence and torture happened to anyone stupid enough to get into a stranger’s car…well, play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
His eyes crawl over you in the rearview mirror. They’re dull, unhappy eyes. You pretend not to notice, your head canted toward the window. You act like you’re fascinated with the scenery passing by, but you can feel his stare lingering.
“What’s your name? Where ya headed?” His voice is low. Guttural.
“Jenny…and if you could just drop me off in the nearest town, I’d really appreciate it.”
“Jenny, eh? You ain’t from ‘round here, are ya, Jenny?”
“No, not really.”
“Are ya poorly?”
“I said, are ya poorly? Your voice sounds funny. Like far away. Sounds like it might be ‘cause you’re poorly. Sick.”
“Oh, no. Just tired.”
“Wanna take a swig of my ‘shine? My moonshine up here?”
“No, thank you.”
“Sure? This here’s good stuff—damn near leave it be for ten years and it’ll still kick.”
He pulls over to the side of the road without warning.
A knot forms in your throat. You consider running. But where? What if he chases? What if it just makes him mad and he ends up doing something terrible to you because you pissed him off?
“Why don’t ya come on up here, take a seat in the front righ’ here,” he says, his eyes glaring at you in the rearview mirror.
“That’s okay. This is fine back here.”
“No, it ain’t. Come on, now. My car, my rules.”
You do what he says and switch to the front seat, which is covered with crumbs and what appears to be a pile of unopened mail.
“Don’t fret ‘bout that there, go on and sit on it.”
You glance at him before getting in. It’s the first time you get a good look at him. His toothy grin shows teeth caked in tobacco; a translucent brown glaze reminiscent of watered-down syrup. You try to return the smile.
He’s overweight, the same overweight that seems to afflict everyone in their mid-fifties, which you guess is most likely his age. His faded blue jeans are so faded they’re more white than blue, and he’s wearing a flannel shirt, the classic red and black checkered pattern. His faced is weathered and lined, a thick gray stubble covering most of it. His hands look rough; bits of the skin are lighter shades of black, as if they’ve been blemished by use. He spits into an empty Coke can.
There’s no seatbelt. On the center console is a brown lunch bag. You can smell bologna. The floor is a smorgasbord of stains, some big and wide, some small like rain drops, but all of them the same horridly dark hue of old blood that has permanently seeped into carpet. A copy of Garden and Gun is wedged between the windshield and dashboard.
“Better. Now, where was it you said you was goin’?”
“Just the next closest town, please.”
You pray you get out of this mess. It’s your first time praying in years.
You were wrong.
They say not to judge a book by its cover, and he’s a perfect example of why, a classic instance of the truth that what most people look like has little bearing on their inherent human qualities.
His name is Edward Taylor, and he has his own auto-repair shop, a shop passed down from his daddy who had it passed down from his daddy. Customers are hard to come by, though; he’s lucky to have a couple per week. He thinks the reason is because of how outdated and old-fashioned his shop looks compared to the others in town. It even has one of those antique gas pumps that people like to collect, and it still works. Sometimes that brings in some cars, some outside folks passing through who see the beautiful pump out front and inquire as to whether it’s for sale. One time, a man offered $2500 dollars for it. But Edward declined. He enjoys having the pump, likes the way its claret paint shines in the sun, how it’s been there in front of the shop like the last bastion of a vanishing world, unmoved despite the passing of time. He likes sitting outside, right at the edge of the garage so that he’s still covered in shade, a cold Coke in hand, watching the cars go by and the people admiring the pump that reminds him of his daddy and his childhood and a better time.
Sometimes, on the weekends when he feels up to it, he goes up to the town’s most popular corner store, pulling a silver wagon behind him, an odd assortment of jars clinking in the back. He walks the few miles from his front doorstep and sets up a small table near the store’s entrance where he sells frog jam and moonshine and slow cooked boiled peanuts. He’s good friends with the owner, a woman who grew up with his daddy, and she welcomes him to sell out front, is even cordial about the whole thing, says it brings an air of authenticity back to this town that these yuppies know nothing about.
Edward says he was born and raised in Cobb County. He’s never left the state. Doesn’t want to; never needed to.
“Back in ’77,” he says, chuckling, “Decided to do a resort ‘bout ninety miles east or so. Wasn’t but more than two days ‘fore I jus’ about offed myself, I was so bored. Believe you me. That ‘bout did it.” His laugh is like listening to the start of a derelict truck’s engine. It’s strangely dulcet and comforting.
He never finished school, dropping out in the 11th grade to help his daddy, instead. But he married his high school sweetheart, Tess, when he was 19, and she was the best thing that ever happened to him, not including his baby girl.
“Way too pretty bein’ with a simple man like myself,” he says. “Wasn’t exactly in tall cotton, us two, but you don’t need much to have a lot.”
Every guy in town coveted Tess, and yet she’d chosen Edward, and it made him feel like the luckiest man in the world. But Tess was killed by a drunk driver seven years ago. Shortly after that, he started losing his daughter.
“I can see ya arms, ya know,” he says, pausing his story.
“Track marks. The track marks on ya arms there, I can see ‘em.”
“Don’t be frettin’ or nothin’, I ain’t tryna cause ya trouble. I could tell you was usin’ pretty soon after I picked ya up. Know how?”
“My daughter, Yolanda, she died of it a ways back. Few years ago. Died of an overdose. Heroin.”
“I’m sorry.” You don’t know what else to say.
“They found ‘er in the bathroom at the Taco Bell. Just down the street here. She locked the door, been in there too long so they damn near broke it down figuring somethin’ had to be wrong. Found ‘er lying there ‘neath the sink. Beautiful brown hair touchin’ the dirty floor an’ all. Still had the needle in ‘er arm when they found ‘er like that.”
“Yup. Found ‘er like that. She was a good girl, Yolanda. Real good girl. I was angry with ‘er, at first, about wha’ she was doin’. Made no sense to me, so I made ‘er leave, hopin’ that might square her away.” Wish I hadn’t, now. She was hurtin’, an’ she was hurtin’ so bad that she was either gunna kill ‘erself or she was gunna find a way to keep goin’, and that’s what she did. Started self-medicating, as they say. Broke my heart. I’d of took all ‘er pain had I could. Would’ve hurt for ‘er so she never needed to hurt again.”
You feel like crying. And you’re scared. Listening to Edward talk about his daughter, you don’t know how you’re still alive. You’ve had so many close calls.
“An’ then I says to myself, I says, ‘Can’t get any worse now I’ve lost Yolanda.’ That’s what I said. That’s what I told everyone, how I went ‘bout tryin’ to console myself and everythin’. But I was a damned fool for thinkin’ that, a thick-headed dreamer to be thinkin’ like that in this world and this place. ‘Cause it wasn’t but six months later I’m in the hospital watchin’ my sister die of heart disease. Dirty needles—that’s what they said done it. She’d been sharin’ needles with folks and shootin’ up heroin over a year. An’ nobody knew ‘til it was too late.”
“Me too. But I coulda done differently. And I shoulda.”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t do right by Yolanda. When she needed me most, I wasn’t there. Ain’t much worse than missin’ someone who’s still there, and that’s how I made it. Made it so I missed Yolanda even though she was still there, and Yolanda was missin’ me the same, even though I was still there. Just blocked her out, sorta, is how I tried handlin’ it, her bein’ on heroin and everythin’. Tried actin’ like she didn’t exist ‘less she was gunna square herself away and get back to bein’ the Yolanda I knew ‘er to be. But now I wish I’d done differently by ‘er. It’s always when ya look back that it all makes sense. ‘Cause what I shoulda done, I shoulda embraced ‘er, not pushed ‘er away.”
“That’s what saves us, even when the whole world’s fallin’ apart: love. Lovin’ each other, bein’ there for each other even when the whole world’s crashin’ down. If that ain’t a fact, then God’s a possum. But I wasn’ there. I left her ‘lone. An’ I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself, not for that I won’t.”
“I know that feeling—what it feels like to know you’ll never forgive yourself for something. It’s terrible. It makes me want to go back in time so bad.”
“Yup. Lack a time an’ foolishness—that’s what makes us start beggin’ sooner or later. Seems like all folks forced to learn it at some point.”
After you tell Edward why you were hitchhiking, and about what happened and how Violet left you, he insists upon taking you out to dinner. You politely tell him no thank you, even decline several times, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t say so outright, but you know there’s something about you that reminds him of Yolanda. After a while, you stop resisting, stop denying Edward’s attempts to help you, and it makes him happy. You can tell by the tone of his voice and the way his eyes smile.
He takes you to a restaurant, a place he says Yolanda loved, and tells you to get whatever you want, basically demanding that you do. It very well might be the best food you’ve ever had.
“I like makin’ others smile an’ all,” he says, once you’re both finished eating. “You think I’m jus’ tryin’ to make you feel good, but you’re makin’ me feel jus’ as good inside. ‘Cause I like to see ya smile.”
He makes you get dessert, too: warm apple pie with a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s amazing. Edward and you talk long after the table’s cleared. Then he insists upon taking you to the nearest store to buy you any essentials you might need.
“Promise me somethin’,” he says before you two get up to leave.
“Promise me you’ll try your damnedest to get clean and righ’, Jenny.” Edward’s voice cracks. Not like how a voice cracks when it’s full of emotion, but how a voice cracks when it’s already broken.
You don’t like making promises. You’re not good at keeping them anymore. But he asks you again.
He pulls something out of his pocket. It’s a charm bracelet.
“Want ya to have this. It was Yolanda’s. Better you have it than me keepin’ it in my pocket. You don’t gotta wear it or nothin’, but jus’ to have it. Please.”
You slip it onto your wrist. It fits perfectly.